Week in Review: Racially-segregated IT retailing

  • Malay-only IT malls are being established to ‘level the playing field’
  • Such stopgap measures only obscure the actual, underlying issue

Week in Review: Racially-segregated IT retailingIF you’re Malaysian, you probably have been having difficulty explaining some of the ‘developments’ in this country to your foreign friends – whether they’re real-life friends or social media-only friends.
 
For instance, how do you rationalise the need for an IT retailing centre where members of only one race – the majority race, to boot – are allowed to peddle their wares?
 
Especially when this is a government initiative, and the minister who is behind the idea of a ‘digital mall’ for one race only, wants all other races to patronise it? It sounds like a sketch from Monty Python’s Flying Circus (there, my age is showing).
 
First, let’s look at how we ended up here.
 
In July, at the very popular Plaza Low Yat mall in Kuala Lumpur, a Malay youth allegedly tried to steal a handphone from a smartphone outlet. Retailers there – largely of Chinese descent – united and caught the youth, in an allegedly rough manner, before handing him to police.
 
Someone on social media caught wind of it, framed the incident in racial terms – just about everything in Malaysia these days is viewed through the racial or religious lens – and before you knew it, we had a race riot in that area of Kuala Lumpur.
 
Rural and Regional Development Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, already infamous for having once urged Malay Malaysians to boycott Chinese Malaysian traders as a way to combat rising consumer prices – and then expressed surprise that he was being branded a ‘racist’ – suggested that the only way to tackle this ‘problem’ was to have a Malay-only ‘Low Yat 2.’
 
Well, that Malay-only mall – dubbed Mara Digital Mall – opened earlier this month, and is only going to be only the first of a network of such malls that Ismail Sabri wants to open. Retailers there will enjoy six months’ free rental and a lot of other incentives to help them compete against other more established malls.
 
And what exactly is the ‘problem’ Ismail Sabri is trying to solve? The lack of Malay – or more accurately ‘bumiputera’ – participation in the IT retail sector.
 
The underlying belief is that they lack the experience to compete against the more established suppliers – who happen to be predominantly of another race (guess which one?) – and are being unfairly kept out of the business.
 
In essence, to create a level playing field, he wants to create a special sandbox.
 
What happens when the six-month free rental period is over, and these retailers have to deal with the ‘real world’? They may have put in some time selling the products, but would this have improved their experience and business acumen?
 
The problem with such thinking is that it never tackles the underlying, fundamental problems.
 
If Malay retailers are being treated unfairly by suppliers, just on the basis of their race, then investigate that issue. If Malay tech traders – especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds – still lack the experience to run a business, or the tech knowledge to get into IT retail, then train them.
 
There are so many other things that you can do to uplift them, without having to mollycoddle them, and more importantly, creating unrealistic expectations that would, in effect, put them at a disadvantage when those crutches are removed.
 
Enough with treating the symptoms, heal the disease. And to do that, you need to remove those race-tinted glasses.
 
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